Separation anxiety can negatively impact sleep.
You may be in the midst of a sleep regression right now, where your once ‘good sleeper’ has suddenly become clingy and it’s negatively affecting naps or night sleep. It’s normal for a child to experience separation anxiety but it can be frustrating for parents and upsetting for kids. It can happen at any age but it’s especially fierce around the ages of nine and eighteen months. As part of this, your child might refuse naps, protest at bedtime or wake during the night, crying.
What you can do to help …
- Plan to spend some 1-1 time with your child during the day. It doesn’t have to be for long. It can even be during caregiving activities such as having dinner or bath time. Turn of your phone so you’re not interrupted. The main thing is to really focus on being present with your child. This time spent with you will help fill your child’s need for attention and connection.
- Stick to your current nap routine and bedtime schedule if it was previously working to avoid creating new habits and keep consistency. Routines help children feel safe and less anxious. Continue to offer a nap if your child still naps and if your child doesn’t sleep, aim for an earlier bedtime. The nap should eventually return.
- Spend time in your child’s bedroom during awake time so she feels like it’s a pleasant place to be. Allow your child to play on her bed or in her cot with a new toy or book, while you put away clothes or tidy the room. Get dressed or change nappies in your child’s room. Turn on some music and dance around the room or play together on the floor.
- If age appropriate, introduce a ‘lovey’ or soft toy that your child can cuddle in your absence. ‘Wear’ the lovey close to your chest for a couple of days so it has your scent. You might give your child a piece of your clothing to hold onto in bed.
- Get creative. Children take everything literally, so use this to your advantage. For older children, try the ‘kissing hands strategy’, based on the book “Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn. Put on some red lippy and kiss your little one’s hand. Your child can press her palm to her cheek whenever she is missing you. Explain that ‘the kiss will jump to her face and fill her with toasty warm thoughts.” You might swap pillowcases. Tell your child when she lies down on her pillow she can imagine your arms around her in a big hug.
- Establish a quiet, calming bedtime routine. Include a bath, some massage and lots of cuddles. The predictability and consistency of the bedtime routine will help your child to feel safe and relaxed before sleep.
- Have a goodbye ritual. Keep it simple and brief. For example, give your child a hug, a kiss and say, “I love you to the moon and back”, each time you leave her. To reinforce this and make it predictable, use the same ‘goodbye’ for other times in the day, not just at sleep time.
- Plan how you will respond if your child protests at bedtime or wakes crying in the night and be consistent with your actions. Act with confidence because your child will pick up on any of your own anxieties. Take some deep breaths to help you relax if you need to. Repeat a mantra in your head to help yourself stay calm. For example, “my child is okay, she knows I love her, my child is okay, she knows I love her”.
- Your child might need comforting and that’s okay. You might need to go to her and reassure her with your voice and some touch, then leave the room for intervals. You might need to repeatedly lie her down if she’s standing in the cot. Preferably don’t pick her up out of her cot or bed because this can be confusing for her. Keep your interaction low key and ‘boring’ so as not to stimulate her. You might need to ‘camp out’ beside her cot for a night or two and gradually work your way back out the door. Some children get more ‘worked up’ the more parents try and help them. Others are instantly soothed with their parent’s close proximity. Think about your child’s temperament and what they would respond to best.
- Above all, avoid introducing any new sleep props that you don’t want to become a dependence, such as rocking to sleep or offering extra feeds or bottles in the night. If you have inadvertently reinforced a new and unwanted habit, don’t panic! You can get your ‘good sleeper’ back with a suitable sleep training plan.
Separation anxiety is real. It’s a natural part of a child’s development and it will pass in time. In most cases, sleep will improve. However, if your child has developed a new and unwanted sleep association and is reliant on you to assist her to sleep, you might want to make some changes. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need to.